There hardly seemed like a reason for another spin on sushi in Boise until I stepped into Dharma Sushi & Thai, the stylish, casual new restaurant in the Adelmann Building.
The concept is straightforward, so simple it could easily go crashing off the tracks: a fast-food version of Americanized sushi and Thai food, set up in this former Tully's Coffee spot. The execution is inexpensive, quick and tasty, accomplished by keeping the menu lean and playing the hits.
Counter service speeds the process. You choose from overhead digital menu boards with vivid images of the food. One night, the young, helpful cook took our order under the menu, coming out from the kitchen to make suggestions. On our next visit, my wife and I stood at the register to order, at the opposite end from the menu, making it unreadable - a traffic flow problem that needs to be fixed.
Dharma is open until 3 a.m. on weekend nights, and pretty much anything that late ought to be made as user-friendly as possible.
The hook was set that first night. When I stepped toward the register to pay I saw something that seized my imagination. On the counter behind the glass was a sky blue box, with a black label that said "SUSHI MACHINE." The worker explained the device. You load a piece of seaweed, pack it full of ingredients, and it twists up a maki roll. Next to the sushi machine is an automated slicer. These expensive "sushi robots" are capable of generating hundreds of rolls an hour, the ultimate secret weapon for a concept like this, run with a two-person crew.
The dining room is clean and modern and comfortable, with bright orange furniture against a gray palette. On the walls are cool black and white photographs and a TV that shows documentaries and old movies. Pickled ginger and wasabi are self-serve next to the beverage case; soy, Sriracha and chopsticks are on the tables.
The food comes to you on recycled disposable vessels, attractively laid out and garnished simply. The Cali ($6) is a good version of the standard California roll, with crab, avocado and cucumber, dressed up with sesame seeds, panko crumbs and sweet unagi sauce. You can get the Cali deep-fried by ordering a Lebowski ($7). (This punny irreverence is a clue toward the cuisine itself.) On both of these, the sushi machine left the big rolls a little loose, but not falling apart.
Slightly more ambitious was the Urban roll ($8.50) - yellowtail, avocado, cream cheese, jalapeno and cilantro, sprinkled with tobiko. The menu called for ponzu, a soy-citrus sauce that's a favorite of mine with sushi, but we were served bottled sweet chili sauce. (We must not have minded - we ate it all without remembering until we had finished.)
The best we tried was the Tree Town ($9.50), a huge roll with grilled eel, crab mix, tuna, cream cheese and avocado. The wide, oozy slices are streaked with spicy mayo and unagi.
Unique are Sushi Stacks ($9.50), three thick cakes of sushi rice filled with cream cheese, fried, topped with a bit of spicy tuna, yellowtail or salmon on top, then a slice of avocado. The end result is a little greasy and totally delicious, like fast food is supposed to be.
On that same note, we liked the fried appetizers we sampled as well. Money Bags ($5.50) are little bundles of crab and cream cheese in crispy wonton skins, served with Mae Ploy, a good take on the American classic crab rangoon. The staff-recommended Thai Bombs ($6) are halved jalapenos filled with a mixture of tuna, crab and cream cheese, battered in tempura and fried, dressed in spicy mayo and unagi. This dish gives you the Dharma philosophy in one bite: Authenticity is irrelevant if it tastes great. It's a menu item I will order every time I go.
Of the Thai dishes, we enjoyed the red curry ($7.50) served with jasmine rice. The curry is a spiced coconut milk broth with carrots, onions and bamboo shoots - with good flavor but a little thin, and I prefer some heat to balance the sweetness. You can add a surprising amount of chicken, tofu, or shrimp for just 50 cents more; our shrimp was brightly seasoned and cooked nicely.
The only dud we encountered was the Thai Lap Bowl ($6), which is served with a choice of protein, and was not itself bad - just not what was pictured. Based on the photo and description, we expected a green salad garnished with rice. We got the reverse: a full cup of white rice on just a few leaves of spring mix, buried at the bottom of the bowl. It's too bad, because we liked the mint and lime, and the dressing on the salad was good.
Dharma Sushi is not for snobs or purists, not wildly daring, not likely to replace your favorite sit-down sushi or Thai place.
But it fills a niche. Everything was fresh and made-to-order, and everything is priced more than fairly. The sushi machine should get a workout on New Year's Eve.